Mike Jacobs is a young, up-and-coming litigator in environmental law, working for the Department of Environmental Protection in the state of Pennsylvania. He knows his job, is diligent, and can go rogue now and again, working behind his boss’ back and against standard protocol to ensure the law protecting the land and the citizens that live on it are safe-guarded. Professionally he’s got what it takes. Personally, though, his life is messy.
Amid Rage is the second book in PA author Joel Burcat’s Mike Jacobs series, the first being Drink To Every Beast, which was published in May, 2019. I’ve yet to read the first book, but happily Amid Rage is enough of a stand-alone novel that doesn’t require the reader needing too much prior information: Joel Burcat fills in the blanks early on in proceedings, allowing you to plow ahead with what is quite a page-turning story.
It beings violently, with the death of a mining inspector: he’s burned to death in his home by the villain of the piece, Ernie Rinati, the owner of Rhino, a mining company. Rinati isn’t getting what he wants from the DEP, with too many conditions placed on his operations, rendering him unable to make the kind of money he feels he deserves. He’s not above pressuring homeowners into buying up their property at knock-down prices, either. Basically he’s a vile human being, valuing the life of his three-legged dog Butch over anything or anyone else. Unfortunately, though, he’s a one-note and rather cartoonish villain.
Joel Burcat’s speciality, however, is in the court room. A practicing environmental lawyer himself, the Philadelphia native brings his experience to the table, giving us courtside seats to the legal wrangles regarding permits and temporary restraining orders (TROs). All of this wouldn’t be half as exciting if there wasn’t a decent story to tell, and Burcat has one, thank goodness. At the centre of the plot is a piece of land that Rinati wants to mine on. In his way are people who own homes on that land. The DEP has allowed Rinati some leeway, but not enough. The homeowners resist his efforts and have hired an inexperienced lawyer, Miranda Clymer, to lead their lawsuit. Mike’s orders are to act as observer only, but a startling bit of sexual blackmail forces Mike to take a more active role than his department allows. (I did mention that Mike’s personal life is messy as hell, right?)
So he’s on his own, although he does, in all fairness, inspire a couple of close friends, Ben and Nicky, to help him out. If it wasn’t for the fact that Rinati is obviously insane, and has henchmen that would make Darth Vader question his choice in allies, Mike would have an easy time of it. But no! Danger lurks in every chapter of this fast-moving, and for the most part, engrossing thriller. Saying Mike Jacobs is just a lawyer is like saying Indiana Jones is just an archaeologist. Mike’s pursuit of the truth gets him and his friends into a lot of trouble, with Nicky especially feeling the full force of Rinati’s vengeance. Parts were uncomfortable to read, but in the end I see what Burcat was aiming for. In fairness, I would’ve preferred if he drew his characterisation of women better;in many instances men, including Mike Jacobs, spent far too much energy ogling their physical characteristics to the point of fantasism and wishful thinking. They’re strong characters in their own right, but I felt they needed their own agency rather than being at the beck and call and the subject of abuse from their male counterparts. Still, it was good to see such abusers get what they deserve.
Burcat brings the story to life with principled and unprincipled attorneys. I like how Mike has to deal with people from his past who haven’t made his life and career any easier for him. Watch out for Judge Diaz and Sidney Feldman. It’s in the courtroom scenes that this novel really comes to life. The action scenes are well done, too. But it’s the personal bits, where Mike questions his choices in love and romance, that need a bit more spark and care. I like Mike a lot. He has a lot to learn, but he’s willing to work hard, and he makes it up as he goes sometimes. Which is what most of us are doing right now, I guess. I give Burcat praise for writing a book that I pretty much enjoyed reading. I expect him to get better the more he writes and publishes.
I thank NetGalley and the publishers for supplying me with a copy of Amid Range prior to publication (Feb 2021) in return for an honest review.